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How a Canadian’s mistake 70 years ago almost botched Japan’s surrender document

Japanese Surrender document

Handout

Sept. 2 – known to history as VJ Day – marks 70 years since the signing on-board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay of Japan's formal surrender. Under the watchful eye of the 31-star American flag that had accompanied Matthew Perry and his Black Ships into that same bay in 1853, the ceremony was brief and solemn as Allied and Japanese representatives signed the two copies of the instrument of surrender.

Amidst the solemnity of the occasion, however, came an unusual historical footnote courtesy of the Canadian representative, Colonel Lawrence Moore Cosgrave. When signing the Japanese copy, Col. Cosgrave – perhaps owing to blindness in one eye – placed his scrawl below the line reserved for the Canadian signature and instead signed on the line of the French representative. In the official timeline of the ceremony, a brief but noticeable delay appears after Col. Cosgrave's signing – the French delegate no doubt perplexed as to where to place his signature.

Each subsequent delegate eventually signed on the next available – if incorrect – line; the final delegate from New Zealand simply signing his name in a blank space underneath the others, his signature line having been commandeered by the Dutch.

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When the Japanese delegation protested – could they accept a botched surrender document? – Douglas MacArthur's famously brusque chief of staff General Richard Sutherland scratched out the now-incorrect list of Allied delegates and handwrote the correct titles under each signature, adding his initials to each correction to forestall further protest. The Japanese were then dismissed from the USS Missouri with a short "Now it's all fine" from Gen. Sutherland.

It was a quirky end to an otherwise dark chapter of human history. Canada's contribution to the historical blooper reel can be seen by the public at Japan's Edo-Tokyo Museum, where the surrender document remains on display. The Allied copy of the document, it should be noted, was signed without incident.

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